VALDOSTA –– Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
When the dust cleared, the Valdosta Wildcats (4-0) were both.
Valdosta High senior quarterback Tate Rodemaker led the ‘Cats on a 12-play, 77-yard drive, highlighted by three crucial scrambles by the South Florida commit and capped by TJ Dailey’s flying plunge into the end zone with 1:03 left. In a gutsy call, the ‘Cats went for two and Rodemaker found Will Wright all alone in the back of the end zone to give Valdosta a 50-49 lead.
“The drive before that, I threw a pick and I just knew I needed to bounce back from that,” the quarterback said. “I just made some plays with my legs, thanks to my O-line and my receivers. It’s just unreal right now.
“That two-point play, I told (offensive coordinator Josh Crawford) not to call it at first because I didn’t think it would be there, but he called it anyways and Will was wide open. That was really fun.”
Much like they’d done all game long, Colquitt wasted no time constructing a reply. Needing to go 80 yards in 63 seconds to win the game, Colquitt quarterback Jaycee Harden pushed the Packers downfield –– a 23-yard completion, followed by another 16-yard connection and a run to get his team in striking distance.
Following an illegal block in the back on the Packers, Harden completed a pass to Tyler Walker but Valdosta was called for pass interference with 16.8 seconds remaining in the game.
More than 20,000 people held their collective breath as Colquitt County kicker Jason Gallardo lined up a potential game-winning 41-yard field goal. The snap was perfect. The hold adequate. The kick fired off Gallardo’s boot and looked like it would drop inside the goal post –– until it didn’t.
The kick pushed slightly left of the left post, no good –– sealing a 50-49 victory for Valdosta in the 105th meeting with Colquitt County (2-1) on Friday night.
“I just feel sorry for that kid,” Valdosta head coach Alan Rodemaker said of the missed field goal. “We’ve been in that situation before and you don’t always make that one. Forty-one yards ain’t no chip shot, but I was just happy we came out on top. ... That was one of the best high school football games I’ve ever been involved with. Instead of being on the short end like we’ve been in situations like that, we ended up on the top end and that was awesome.”
In an instant classic, Colquitt County rallied from 21 points down and did not take its first lead until a 37-yard pass and catch from Harden to Dijmon Wheeler with 5:10 to play that gave the Packers a 49-42 lead. The Packers also tied the game at 42 when Harden found star running back Daijun Edwards for a 25-yard score with 8:22 left in regulation.
Friday’s game saw Valdosta and Colquitt combine for 1,250 total yards –– 743 for Colquitt and 507 for Valdosta.
In a battle between two of the state’s best quarterbacks, Rodemaker completed 17-of-24 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, while Harden went 26-for-42 for 414 yards with five touchdowns and one interception.
For the Packers, Edwards had 16 carries for 169 yards to go along with one rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the game.
“We couldn’t stop them,” Coach Rodemaker said of Colquitt’s offense. “There were some guys we had a hard time covering. I couldn’t blitz because I couldn’t put our kids in one-on-one coverage so we tried to play zone as much as we could. We’ve got to figure some things out, but they’re a really good football team and I think their wide outs are really special and their quarterback played a heck of a game. What can you say about (Edwards)? I mean, if he ain’t the best back in the state, I don’t know who is.”
Dailey had 22 carries for 95 yards on the ground while catching three passes for a team-high 97 yards. Jaheim Bell had five catches for 55 yards and Javonte Sherman had three grabs for 56 yards.
An eight-yard touchdown punch from Dailey gave the ‘Cats a 28-14 lead with 1:56 left in the first half. But the Packers refused to relinquish momentum as Harden hit (player) for a 33-yard touchdown pass to cut the Valdosta lead to 28-21 at the half.
Valdosta started fast, jumping out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter following an interception by Elijah Norwood. Both Wildcats and Packers fans packed Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, but the big lead early left the Colquitt faithful silent with Valdosta rolling.
“When Colquitt came back, I just told my guys to keep their heads up,” Tate Rodemaker said of Colquitt’s early comeback. “The whole offense stepped up to lead, telling the entire defense to keep their heads up.”
Rodemaker hit TJ Dailey for a 77-yard strike to make it 14-0 with 3:01 left in the opening quarter. Defensively, the ‘Cats continued to show a knack for making plays on that side of the ball as Quinton Wade forced a fumble from Harden and converted a scoop-and-score to put the ‘Cats on the board on the Packers’ first play from scrimmage.
For Valdosta, the win snaps a six-game losing streak against Colquitt.
“You could tell with our kids tonight, they thought they were gonna win tonight,” Coach Rodemaker said. “I heard them on the sideline the whole game. They were just gonna hang in there and finish this game. It was an awesome win. It was great for our program.”
Valdosta: Hosts Beaufort (S.C.) next Friday at 8 p.m.
Colquitt County: Hosts Warner Robins next Friday at 8 p.m.